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Do you find it difficult to make decisions about something that you know is not really good for you? Does it cause you stress and anxiety? Sometimes we can suffer from cognitive dissonance where we act in ways that go against our values. Here we explain how you can get help.

What is cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when an individual experiences an internal conflict between their thoughts, beliefs, attitudes or behaviors. It usually occurs when a person’s actions do not align with their beliefs or values, leading to a feeling of discomfort or anxiety. To reduce this dissonance, or inner conflict, the individual tends to change their beliefs, attitudes or behaviors to create a more harmonious experience.

Cognitive dissonance is a central theory in social psychology and helps explain many different types of human behavior and attitude changes.

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Examples of cognitive dissonance

Examples of cognitive dissonance include a person who smokes despite knowing that it is harmful to their health. The internal conflict between knowing that smoking is harmful and continuing to smoke can create a sense of discomfort.

To reduce the dissonance, the person can either change their behaviour (stop smoking) or change their beliefs (rationalize their behaviour by thinking that the health effects may not be so severe).

Festinger and the theory of cognitive dissonance

Leon Festinger was the psychologist who coined the term cognitive dissonance. His theory explains how people deal with conflicts between their actions and beliefs. When people act in ways that contradict their beliefs, or when they hold conflicting beliefs, an internal tension or dissonance arises.

This dissonance is unpleasant, leading to attempts to reduce it by changing beliefs, behaviours or by rationalizing the inconsistency. Festinger’s theory has been of great importance in social psychology and behavioral change.

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Symptoms of cognitive dissonance

The symptoms of cognitive dissonance manifest themselves in different ways, depending on the individual and the situation. Common signs that someone is experiencing cognitive dissonance include:

  1. Feeling of discomfort: A general feeling of discomfort or anxiety when confronted with two conflicting thoughts, beliefs, attitudes or behaviors.
  2. Rationalization: Attempting to rationalize or explain away conflicting behaviors or beliefs, often by creating new excuses or explanations.
  3. Denial: Ignoring or denying information or evidence that contradicts one’s own beliefs or behaviors.
  4. Inner conflict: Feeling pulled in different directions by conflicting opinions or desires.
  5. Self-criticism: Increased self-criticism, guilt or shame around specific actions or decisions that contradict one’s own values or self-perception.
  6. Worry and stress: Feelings of worry and stress about not being consistent in one’s thinking or actions.
  7. Attitudinal changes: changing one’s beliefs or attitudes to reduce dissonance.

These symptoms are not always immediately obvious and can sometimes be subtle. Cognitive dissonance is a natural part of human behavior and everyone experiences it at some point, but its impact varies by person and situation.

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When to seek help?

If you experience these feelings frequently, or if they start to affect your daily life, it may be time to consider contacting a psychologist. Professional help can give you the tools to manage these feelings and understand their origins.

Dealing with cognitive dissonance

Psychological treatment is possible if you suffer from cognitive dissonance. Motivational interviewing is a method designed specifically to work on creating change in the direction that the person wants and feels best. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is another form of treatment that focuses on thoughts, feelings and behaviors which is also helpful in creating change.

There are also newer forms of CBT such as Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT), which focuses on valued direction, which can be helpful in overcoming cognitive dissonance and creating new ways forward.

We make the difficult easier

Navigating feelings of unreality can be challenging, but remember that you are not alone. By understanding and accepting these feelings, and by seeking help when needed, you can take a step towards feeling better. We offer contact with experienced psychologists and therapists who can support you in this journey. Do not hesitate to contact us if you feel you need someone to talk to.

12 common questions and answers about cognitive dissonance

What is cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when an individual experiences an internal conflict between their thoughts, beliefs, attitudes or behaviors. It usually occurs when a person’s actions do not align with their beliefs or values, leading to a feeling of discomfort or anxiety.

What does cognitive dissonance feel like?

Cognitive dissonance can be felt as an internal stress but it can also show up in external behaviors. You may feel confused, ashamed, conflicted and anxious.

Is cognitive dissonance dangerous?

On its own, cognitive dissonance is not dangerous, but it can lead to health problems such as stress and anxiety. It is important to seek professional help if these feelings are affecting your everyday life.

How is cognitive dissonance treated?

Treatment for cognitive dissonance can be done with motivational interviewing in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy, among others, depending on the nature of the problem. It is an individual assessment and treatment.

Can cognitive dissonance be a sign of another disease?

Yes, cognitive dissonance can be a symptom of other problems such as addiction, anxiety problems, depression or underlying trauma and/or neuropsychiatric problems.

Can cognitive dissonance resolve itself?

Yes, it can resolve itself if you act in the direction you value.

When should I seek professional help for cognitive dissonance?

You should seek professional help if you have a behavior that is causing problems in your life and you want to change it in some way. A psychologist or psychiatrist can provide advice and treatment tailored to the individual’s needs.

Can cognitive dissonance affect work or studies?

Cognitive dissonance can have an impact on work and study performance by causing stress and decision-making anxiety. It can also lead to depression.

How common is it to experience cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is a natural part of human behavior and everyone experiences it at some point, but its impact varies depending on the person and the situation.

Can cognitive dissonance worsen over time?

Yes, cognitive dissonance can worsen, but when it does, stress and anxiety tend to increase. Usually this is resolved by changing your behavior, but if it makes you feel worse, you should seek medical attention.

Does cognitive dissonance affect physical health?

Although cognitive dissonance is primarily psychological, it can indirectly affect physical health. The stress and anxiety that often accompany these feelings can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension and sleep problems. Taking care of your physical health is important.

Where can I get help?

At Lavendla, we have psychologists and therapists who can help you move forward if you are experiencing cognitive dissonance with any situation or lifestyle change. We make the hard things easier.

Dealing with cognitive dissonance in therapy

Cognitive dissonance can cause stress and seeking help is a big step towards better health, deciding to work on your wellbeing is a positive thing. Here is an overview of the steps that are usually included in a treatment for cognitive dissonance.

Step 1: An initial assessment session

The first meeting with your psychologist or therapist is an assessment to review your history and how the condition developed. You may be asked questions about your life situation, feelings, thoughts and behaviors. You may also be asked to complete assessment forms.

Step 4: Treatment with different techniques and tools

This is the start of the actual treatment phase, which involves exercises aimed at giving you tools to overcome and work through the problem you are suffering from. Depending on the method used, the content may differ. Acceptance and commitment therapy works more with valued direction and acceptance. Motivational interviewing can also be used.

Step 5: Monitoring and evaluation

Treatment is monitored regularly to see how well the therapy is working. If necessary, the treatment plan can be adjusted or renewed.

Step 6: Ending and looking ahead

As the therapy comes to an end, it is time to reflect on the progress made. You will also receive a maintenance plan for how to use the tools and strategies you have learned in the future. It is also important to monitor the results over time.

If you or someone close to you is seeking professional help, do not hesitate to book a session with one of our licensed psychologists or therapists.

If you have thoughts of self-harm or suicide, contact 112 or the nearest emergency psychiatric clinic.

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Written by Ellen Lindgren

Licensed psychologist

Ellen is a licensed psychologist and has experience mainly in clinical psychology where she has worked with various conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, crises and trauma in primary care and psychiatry. She has also worked with research while studying in the US and with affective disorders and insomnia at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.